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There's no two ways about it, the standard 3x optical zoom on compact cameras is about as much use as walking three steps closer to the subject. What if you want a decent shot of a football player, a close up of your neighbour sunbathing, or to spot birds flying or animals snouting in the undergrowth? You need a big zoom, something equivalent to at least 200mm. Well here's the Panazonic FZ8 with an equivalent zoom of 432mm!
- Sensor: CCD - 7.2Mp
- Image Size: 3072 x 2304 pixels (4:3)
- Lens: Leica DC Vario-Elmarit 36-432mm f/2.8-f/3.3 (12x optical zoom)
- Focus: TTL Auto / Manual]
- Macro: 5cm
- Exposure: Program AE, AP, SP, Manual
- Shutter speed: 60-1/2000sec
- Metering: Intelligent Multiple, Centre-weighted, Spot
- Monitor: 2.5inch TFT LCD
- Movie Mode: Yes
- Storage: SD / MMC
- Batteries: Li-Ion Battery Pack
- Video Output: Yes
- Size/Weight: 112.5 x 72.2 x 79.0 mm - 310g
With a street price of around £250, there's plenty of zoom performance for your money. Up against it are the Olympus SP-550 UZ which has a staggering 18x optical zoom but costs another £50, and also the Fuji S9600 which has a higher resolution than both, offer a 10.1x optical zoom and costs £269 on the street.
Modes and features
There's a certain no-nonsense, John Smith's Bitter, approach to the control of the FZ8. By which I don't mean they were designed by a beer lover, but that they are straightforward and easy to access. Let's start with the mode dial - nice to see the range of PASM program modes, plus easy mode, video, playback and scene modes. The latter offers 20 scenes, including some food, starry skies and two types of baby shots. A simple slider says on or off and the front of the hand grip has the zoom rocker for the 12x zoom. Also on the top of the camera are a shaky hand symbol - this selects the optical stabilisation options (or turns it off), and the focus selection button where the choice is auto-focus, macro and manual focus.
Around the back of the camera, above the 2.5in. LCD is a release switch for the built-in flash, which pops up with a meaty thwack, and a button to switch between the LCD and an Electronic Viewfinder. Now, before we go any further, obviously the big feature of the camera is the 12x optical zoom, so how well this works is paramount to whether it gets a thumbs up or a large raspberry. So, the first point to note is that optical viewfinders on compacts rarely have any information on them, so an electronic one is a good idea when it's too sunny to see the LCD. The second point to note is that with a 12x zoom, you really need to have some kind of stabilisation in there, and the FZ8 has it. And thirdly, let's talk about apertures. The wide angle end of the zoom has an aperture of f/2.8 which is okay, but when the zoom rolls out to the telephoto end... and that's a long way... the aperture shifts up to just f/3.3. Now that's a result. A 420mm zoom lens with an f/3.3 aperture would cost you a handsome sum in the SLR world. Now, obviously this isn't SLR zoom lens quality, but to offer f/3.3 at the 12x end of the zoom is some feat. What it means is that you will get fast shutter speeds - essential for avoiding shake - at the telephoto end.
Back to the camera then and there's a fair number of buttons and controls on the back, but it's all very obvious. The joypad arrangement of keys also houses the menu system, flash options, timer and exposure compensation. There's an image delete button and one that configures display options. These range from adding information, like a live histogram and a rule of thirds grid, to setting the brightness of the LCD for those sunny days. Above this, arranged with no particular grace or nod towards being aesthetically pleasing, is the thumbstick. Why this wasn't in the middle of the joypad is anyone's guess, but there it is and it provides immediate control of up to three settings. These are usually arranged along the bottom of the LCD screen and include exposure compensation, aperture/shutter speed and auto-focus area point. Move the stick sideways to select one, then up and down to change the setting, or, in the case of the focus point, to move it around the screen. Exactly what focus point options are on hand depends on the setting in the menu as blocks of points or single points can be selected. This is all good though, it's slightly clumsy in that once the system of selecting a point is active, all other info disappears off the screen and doesn't reappear until the thumbstick is pressed down again, locking the focus point in place.
Among the other features that are revealed in the menu system are that the ISO range can be set to auto or from 100-1250, which is a little underpowered compared to most systems, however there is a high sensitivity mode that goes up to ISO3200 if reuquired. The camera can also shoot in either JPEG or RAW, which is slightly surprising for a compact. It's also good to see the standard metering options of zone, centre-weighted and spot.
Build and handling
In order to keep the weight down, as well as costs, the body is made of plastic with a kind of dull-grey silver. The handling is fine because it isn't heavy and the hand grip is large and well indented. The mode dial is fairly industrial and the buttons are generally easily accessible and usable, though the two on the top require a firm press. It isn't particularly stylish as cameras go, just a little bland. Point to note is that the lens housing has a screw thread so extenders could be added. The FZ8 does come with a lens shade which is good, but it doesn't clip or snap on, it slides over the lens housing and then a screw needs to be tightened to clamp it on. This is fairly unsatisfactory but as it's a freebie with the camera it's churlish to complain too much.
There are quite a few choices here, starting with auto and auto with red-eye reduction. It can be forced on, forced to use red-eye reduction, set with slow sync and red-eye. There's also flash compensation available at +/-2EV in one third steps, but the range is just a modest 6m.
Startup time is quite slow at around 5secs, but this isn't hugely surprising considering the lens has to sort itself out. Turning the camera off takes much the same time. Burst mode in fine mode can shoot at an impressive 2fps, but only for five shots, and it then takes 20secs to clear the buffer. The more compressed options can manage up to 3fps and seven shots, but this is traded against a drop in quality. There's also an unlimited burst mode, which rattles the shots off as before, but then as each one is saved to the memory card the space in the internal buffer is cleared to make the next shot available.
As mentioned earlier, the most impressive thing about the lens is the provision of f/3.3 at the end of the monster zoom. As the starting point is a fairly narrow 36mm equiv, it means the zoom reaches on and on. Although small increments can be made using the zoom, it is electronically controlled and is fairly slow to respond. When moving it can shift up and down the scale with some speed, but the initial sluggardlyness is bound to irritate at times.
The LCD screen is 2.5in. but isn't great quality with 207k pixels to go round. The EVF though, impresses with 188k pixels shoe-horned into a small space.
Checking the colour rendition shows typical compact results with primary blue being much lighter, red being pretty much spot on, and green lacking a little saturation, although the foliage colour is very accurate. The combinations though, are influenced by the primaries so that the bluish-green combo is simply cyan and the cyan colour is much brighter. Yellows are actually quite flat, which results in the oranges being quite murky.
The ISO100 test shows noise in the plain grey area, and in the shadows there's additional purple noise, but the image is very sharp and detail is clear. At ISO200 it's more noticeable as the noise is sharper with clear artefacts appearing. Things change at ISO400 though, as the noise is more widespread, but the processing kicks in to make it softer. The result is that the effect in plain areas isn't a lot worse, but the image loses sharpness and detail as a result. At ISO800 it's being well controlled so that the grey card area has noise but it's usable. The image is still softer though. At ISO1250 the colour starts to shift with the red becoming darker, but as the effects are still kept under reasonable control it's a surprise that there isn't a standard ISO1600 mode.
There's one prime selling point of this camera and that's the 12x optical zoom which reaches to an impressive 432mm equivalent with the wide aperture only shifting from f/2.8 to f/3.3 along the way. It's a little sluggish to start, but rattles along fine when going and the camera features optical image stabilisation to help keep pictures sharp. That can help both at the wide angle end in low light, and at the telephoto end. The image quality is mediocre, you certainly won't be printing anything larger than A4, but at least colour fringing is kept under control. There is plenty of manual control and it's good to see that exposure compensation can still be used in the scene modes, unlike, for example, most of the Samsung range. What's good about the camera is that it's easy to use and the controls are all right where you want them, so making adjustments is fast and enjoyable. That, I think, is a key point to this camera, that besides the lure of the superzoom, it's genuinely fun to use. Yes, the image quality isn't great, but it isn't awful either, so if you're looking for a camera with that extra reach then this one should be considered.
Design is a bit bland
Zoom a little slow to start
Camera not quick to start up
Image quality mediocre
The Panasonic DMC-FZ8 costs around £250 and can be purchased from the ePHOTOzine shop here.